UPDATE: Shortly before 6 p.m. today, a federal court jury returned guilty verdicts against former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner on charges she took bribes in returns for pushing $2.5 million worth of commissions on bond purchases to broker Steele Stephens. The jury took about 3.5 hours. Reporters in the courtroom say she burst into tears at the verdict.
Shoffner and her attorneys made no comment as they left the courthouse. She remains free on bond pending sentencing and another trial on separate charges. The U.S. attorney’s office said it would reserve comment until tomorrow.
The 14 counts covered six counts of extortion, one count of attempted extortion and seven counts of bribery. But it all boiled down to money passed by Stephens to Shoffner over the course of four years when he wound up with more than a half-billion in bond business, far more than any other broker. He testified under an immunity agreement that he’d paid $6,000 to Shoffner on six occasions, the last while wired by the FBI. She was arrested moments after the last exchange.
Shoffner offered no defense witnesses and her attorneys held to their story that Shoffner might have broken state ethics laws by taking illegal cash gifts and campaign contributions, but what she’d done didn’t constitute bribery and wasn’t a federal offense. No word yet if the judge has ruled on a defense motion that the prosecutors hadn’t proved a federal crime because the payments weren’t in interstate commerce. The government argued that the state investments included federal money and were used for securities from other states. The judge said he’d rule on that afar the verdict.
Shoffner, 69, could face 20 years in prison on each charge, but sentencing will follow a probation office report. She also is awaiting trial on separate federal charges of converting campaign contributions to personal expenses charged on her credit card.
Shoffner, a Democrat, resigned shortly after her arrest. Gubernatorial appointee Charles Robinson has been serving in the interim. Four candidates have filed for the office in this year’s election. Shoffner is a former state representative. Her favoritism in bond dealing was first reported here in 2011. Other reporting followed, as well as a critical legislative audit. But other than suspicion, all of that turned up no criminal violations. Federal investigators began talking to Stephens, however, and he began cooperating. He told of cash payments, but investigators had no proof of that until his secretly taped May foray to her Newport home with a pie box stuffed with an apple pie and a $6,0000 roll of hundreds. She was arrested that day, a Saturday, and resigned the next week.
WRITTEN EARLIER TODAY:
Defense attorneys called no witnesses this morning in the trial of former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner on charges that she took cash from bond broker Steele Stephens who scored $2.5 million worth of commissions on state bond business while she was in office.
The defense has argued that Stephens’ cash payments to Shoffner — the last recorded on a hidden video camera when he was cooperating with the FBI — were perhaps improper campaign contributions, but not bribes and only gifts from a friend to a politician with money troubles. The defense has also argued — and the judge has said he’ll consider — that interstate commerce wasn’t involved in the payments and thus they were not within the jurisdiction of federal prosecutors. Stephens, who’s received immunity for his testimony, has not called the payments bribes, but said he had expected they’d help his business and they did.
Closing arguments began at 11 a.m. Jury deliberations began shortly before 2 p.m.
The prosecution asked the jury to use common sense. Money paid. Commissions zoomed. The defense acknowledged that Shoffner did something that was wrong, but insisted the money had no link to state business. No state money was lost, the defense said.
UPDATE: About 3:30 p.m., parties returned to the courtroom, a suggestion that a verdict might be near. But Brian Chilson reports that they convened so the judge could take a question from the jury. Then they came back with their unanimous verdicts around 5:45